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Drancy, Paris

  
  (up to 8/2012, now possibly )  - darkometer rating:  5 -
 
Drancy 06 - the rail carriageThe site of the principal transit camp on the outskirts of Paris from which Jews were deported from France to the extermination camps in Poland during the Holocaust/WWII. Until recently there was only a small memorial, but a new visitor centre now honours the historical gravity of the place somewhat more appropriately  
More background info: After Germany defeated France in its 1940 Blitzkrieg invasion early in WWII, it didn't take long for the Holocaust to take hold in France too. Indeed, its execution relied heavily on the collaboration of the Vichy regime and the French police were decisively involved in the rounding up of the Jews in the country.
 
To house these Jews, a part of the Cite de la Muette, a modern multi-storey housing complex (built in the 1930s), which had been appropriated by the Nazis and used as an army barracks, was turned into an internment camp from August 1941. The buildings had been designed to house some 700 inhabitants, but during their use as a prison camp, the numbers were often more than ten times that. Conditions were harsh, hunger and brutality (meted out by French guards!) were the norm.
 
Drancy soon became a 'transit camp' – from here the imprisoned Jews were deported by train to the concentration camps and death camps in Poland, especially from summer 1943 when the SS took over the running of the Drancy camp, as the "final solution" was heading towards its near completion.
 
Of the 65,000 to 80,000 Jews who were deported from France, about 90 per cent had gone through Drancy. Most were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, a small proportion also to Sobibor, where nearly all of them were murdered in the gas chambers. Less than 2000 of those deported from Drancy are believed to have survived the Holocaust. This makes Drancy the single most significant site of the Shoah in the whole of France (ahead of France's only concentration camp proper, Natzweiler-Struthof in Alsace).
 
As the Allies approached Paris in August 1944, the camp guards fled (after destroying the camp's files) and the remaining 1500 inmates were liberated on 17 August.
 
After the end of WWII, the building complex was again used as a military barracks until 1976, when a large part of the original Cite de la Muette was demolished. The name (meaning 'silent', 'mute'), which had been intended to celebrate the perceived peacefulness of the housing estate, had taken on a bitter irony. Only the part of the complex that was used as the actual internment camp, a U-shaped ensemble of three long five-storey apartment blocks, was spared demolition. It was also in 1976 that the central sculpture was put in place to serve as a memorial; the railway car was added in 1988. The original blocks of flats now serve as council housing.
 
Update: In September 2012 a new visitor centre run under the auspices of the Shoah Memorial Museum opened its door to the public. This is a major enhancement of the significance of the site from a dark-tourism perspective too. I haven't yet seen this new centre. But next time I'm in Paris it will be high on my priority list!
 
The memorial at Drancy has been a target of vandalism, unfortunately, including an arson attack and quite unsavoury graffiti involving swastikas. Some Muslim extremist marks left here have also been reported. When I was there, the worst thing that I saw was mere rubbish (empty fast food containers and a six-pack box of beer), dumped at the foot of the main sculpture. Probably just the typical signs of an under-privileged neighbourhood.
 
Drancy is indeed a rather drab suburban place, though not quite as plagued by ethnic tensions, crime and sometimes full-scale riots as some other suburbs east of Paris (as especially in 2005). Still, a French friend of mine advised me against going to Drancy at all. As you can tell, I disregarded that piece of advice and when I did go to Drancy, on a Sunday morning in March 2011, the place seemed perfectly peaceful to me. The streets were quiet, almost deserted, except for a few people (mostly pensioners) walking their dogs. It may be different at other times, but from what I experienced I can't confirm that it's a decidedly dodgy area. That said, though, the complex around the metro-bus-tram station of Bobigny Pablo Picasso is indeed quite an example of a suburban horror ensemble. But just across the footbridge at its northern end, things quickly get small-scale and peaceful.
 
 
What there is to see: Much more now than until only quite recently! It was only in September 2012, some 70 years after the deportations from Drancy started, that a proper documentation centre opened its doors at the site. I haven't seen it with my own eyes yet but it's supposed to be a proper place for contemplation and features a permanent exhibition about the site for more educational visits than had previously been possible. It wasn't there yet when I was last in Paris, so I have to go back and check it out at some point. Needless to say, once I've managed to do so I will report back here as soon as possible.
 

Up until this new centre opened there hadn't been exactly much to see. A memorial monument was constructed in 1976, centred on a sculpture by the artist Shlomo Selinger entitled "The Gates of Hell". It's full of symbolism, but that may not reveal itself easily to the causal visitor. More overt is the addition of a second element to the memorial site: a railway cattle carriage – as used in the deportations. It stands on a short stretch of rails and another set of tracks leads at a right angle towards the main sculpture.

 
There are steps leading up to the doors of the carriage, but it is locked. Only a couple of small plaques set into the ground nearby provide some minimal information.
 
The U-shaped ensemble of blocks of flats you can see behind the memorial and railway carriage constitute what remains of the actual transit camp. It's the only part that was left standing when the rest of the former Cite de la Muette was demolished. That is, these were the actual prison buildings holding the deportees before they were sent east. Today, they are again private housing and thus off limits to the public. You'll have to be content with a look from the outside.
 
Until late 2012 that was all there was to the place. So it was a long trek out for rather little – a pilgrimage site, really, probably only for the very committed dark tourists or visitors with personal links to the history of the place. But it is, after all, a site of one of the darkest chapters in the history of 20th century France. Finally, this is now being properly recognized through the new documentation centre.
 
 
Location: far out east in the Paris suburb of Drancy just beyond Bobigny where the metro line ends. The memorial stands on the north-eastern side of the road Avenue Jean-Jaurès and just south of the remaining housing blocks of the former Cite de la Muette. The new memorial and documentation centre is just south of the site at 110-112, Avenue Jean-Jaurès.
 
Google maps locator:[48.9189,2.4542]
  
 
Access and costs: a long metro ride and walk out to a suburb of Paris, but not too difficult to get to; free.
 
Details: Drancy is far out, actually beyond Paris's city limits proper, in the suburb of the same name, Drancy, north of Bobigny. However, it is not too complicated to get there from central Paris: take metro line 5 to its eastern terminus at Bobigny Pablo Picasso, only 9 stops from Gare du Nord. From there you have to walk – it takes about 20-30 minutes.
 
When you come out of the metro exit you first have to fiddle your way through the decidedly ugly concrete monstrosity of the Cite Pablo Picasso. Take the stairs to the upper walkway level just north of the station exit, past the bus stops. Up there proceed eastwards and then north to get to the footbridge over the park and roads that cover the underground Paris ring motorway (Peripherique). The bridge, by the way is called Passerelle Marie-Claire, after a woman who won an important court case at the nearby tribunal court of Bobigny which led to the liberalization of France's abortion laws in 1975.
  
At the other end of the bridge (by the courthouse) find the spiral staircase that takes you straight back down to street level (better hold your breath – the staircase, sheltered by a tower-like brick wall is clearly an attractive point to be misused as an emergency "public convenience"). Then walk straight north into Rue de Lorraine, past the big white police station. After this, the scene becomes one of sleepy suburbia with one and two-storey semis and detached houses. Suddenly the typical horrific tower blocks of Parisian suburbia seem far away.
 
At the end of Rue de Lorraine turn left into Rue de la Madeleine and then use one of the side streets to the right (e.g. Rue de la Liberte) to get to Avenue Jean-Jaurès and turn left. The memorial is just a couple of blocks up the street on the right. Right opposite it is even signposted (exactly at the spot where you least need it) – a white arrow pointing across the road, where the memorial's central sculpture is conspicuous enough anyway. A flag pole flying the Tricolore next to the monument serves as an additional hard-to-miss landmark.
  
Drancy also has a train station which is served by the RER regional commuter trains (line B) – but note that not all trains stop here(!); the express trains to Charles de Gaulle Airport go straight through. The walking distance to the memorial would be roughly the same from there, but the metro at Bobigny is at least as convenient and more frequent. Also the walk from Drancy station to the memorial is more complex to navigate, and in parts even less "scenic" too (it also requires taking the long bridge across the huge railway area next to the station).
 
The outdoor parts of the memorial at Drancy can be visited for free at any time. The new documentation centre has the following opening times: Sunday to Thursday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., closed Fridays and Saturdays. Also closed all August as well as on a number of (mostly Jewish) holidays. Admission free.

On Sundays the Memorial de la Shoah in the centre of Paris (who also runs this Drancy branch) offers its own special shuttle bus service to Drancy. This departs at 2 p.m. from directly outside the Shoah Memorial and returns at 5 p.m.; the service is free but subject to availability.
 
 
Time required: seeing the monument and pausing a moment for reflection may take at best between 10 to 15 minutes, no more. Getting there will most definitely take disproportionately longer. How long a visit to the new documentation centre's exhibition may take, however, I cannot yet say, but I would guess that something between an hour or two may be adequate.
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: nothing in the vicinity; for other dark sights you need to get the metro back to central Paris, e.g. to the hub of Gare du Nord, via the stop named after Stalingrad (see Volgograd), which makes for an odd sight for the dark tourist in Paris too in its own little way. From there it also easy to get to Pere Lachaise on the metro line 2 (six stops).
 
On Sundays you may be able to take advantage of the free shuttle bus service offered by the Memorial de la Shoah (see above) – seeing this centre's own exhibition before taking the bus would thus be the absolute perfect combination.
 
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: none whatsoever nearby – on the contrary, you could hardly think of a less touristy area in the Paris metropolitan conurbation. However, the metro provides easy access back to the centre of Paris.
    
 
 
  • Drancy 01 - memorial seen from across the roadDrancy 01 - memorial seen from across the road
  • Drancy 02 - solitary signDrancy 02 - solitary sign
  • Drancy 03 - the memorialDrancy 03 - the memorial
  • Drancy 04 - inscription and flagDrancy 04 - inscription and flag
  • Drancy 05 - central sculptureDrancy 05 - central sculpture
  • Drancy 06 - the rail carriageDrancy 06 - the rail carriage
  • Drancy 07 - rail carriage closer upDrancy 07 - rail carriage closer up
  • Drancy 08 - even closerDrancy 08 - even closer
  • Drancy 09 - plaqueDrancy 09 - plaque
  • Drancy 10 - rubbish by the memorialDrancy 10 - rubbish by the memorial
  • Drancy 12 - suburbiaDrancy 12 - suburbia
  • Drancy 13 - street view near the footbridge to the metroDrancy 13 - street view near the footbridge to the metro
  • Drancy 14 - on Passerelle Marie-ClaireDrancy 14 - on Passerelle Marie-Claire
  • Drancy 15 - drab Drancy housing blocksDrancy 15 - drab Drancy housing blocks
  

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